My beautiful wife has started setting aside time to work on herself lately – I’m so proud of her – and recently she has been thinking out loud about how taking risks is an important part of growth. I agree with her that risks are a part of life and the people that I see growing the fastest are the risk takers, but neither one of us is really a daredevil. So what does that mean for us?
I’ve known for a long time that I wouldn’t fit into a certain mold. I’m not a wheeler-dealer, or fast talker. I’m not able to sell the pants off a chimpanzee or bring people together locked in kumbaya arms even for free hamburgers and beer. At one time I thought I could pull some tabula rasa shit and force myself to become a different person and I actually had some success. Although it was a lot of work and I just ended up feeling like crap and fraudulent. I’ve decided that it’s time to pull back and focus on the things that when distilled, boils down to that brown-black, crusty essence of Rob that’s left after all the water burns off. In a way the riskiest bet you can make is to lay down your identity. That thing that gives you a Spiderman origin story and helps you bind together all the mismatched jigsaw pieces of the world that forms your perspective. If you lose that bet you’ve gambled everything you’ve ever known about the world sending you silently screaming into in a psychopathic dissociative meltdown. Quite a lot to risk.
Generally speaking I think the United States has become culturally risk averse. I hear a lot of talk about crime and there seems to be an abundance of anxiety about it, but when I think about it I can go outside right this minute and freely walk in places that twenty years ago I might have been shot or mugged in. We have warning labels on things that should be obvious. We worry about the tiniest details to the point where young people are now becoming defensive for other people, whether it’s needed or not. People fear government overreach even though nobody has really threatened anything that drastic – well, nobody currently in power that is. The future is uncertain and it’s almost as if we don’t know how to be happy unless we have something to be worried about. In reality things have never been as good as it is right now. It might feel like desperate times, with Paris, San Bernardino, and now Brussels under attack. My heart goes out to Brussels, so I don’t mean to make light of their suffering, however if you ask any Syrian refugee to compare their lives to ours I’m pretty sure you’re going to see a huge dichotomy.
In a previous post I talked about having good people around you and more than a few times I’ve found that to be true. I was born with more bone in my skull than brains so it can take some time before lessons get hammered into my head, but keeping good people around is one condition that has saved my ass time and again while taking risks. Without that firm ground to stand on, without the confidence of being able to retreat into a safe place, and without a cheer-leading section to keep your momentum up it can be difficult to grow.
For those people that I count among my friends all of them live with varying degrees of risk taking. Some have gone more or less solo, chasing down that dream of being your own boss. Something I aspire to. Others are locked in jobs that make them feel like their life is a waste. Something I’m sympathetic to. The best of us find hobbies and interests that make us real people outside of work instead of cardboard cutouts that get propped up in cubicles and storefronts. Wasting away. Trapped in the chains of the economy. Public policy. “Synergy” and oceans of pointless vomit, piss, and shit built up over the centuries and sold as gold bricks by previous generations. We all crave something better, but it can seem daunting to take on massive institutions.
If I look at people who have built a solid business they don’t look like me. Outgoing, gregarious, smart with money, well invested, and well planned. I don’t really see those qualities in me. Others might, but impostor syndrome is a real thing. What I’ve realized though, after a couple of years in the working world, is that no one knows what the f**k they are doing. We are all just making this up as we go. That realization was an empowering moment. It’s as if I was given permission to learn by screwing up, which really is the best way for a thick-headed ape like me to learn, because everyone else is screwing it up right alongside. So when risk goes from something that keeps us up at night to transforming into a life lesson in disguise then it develops into an important tool for growth that you can kind of manage.
Fear, and fear of failure, is a significant factor to overcome especially if you are like me and risk averse. The wife shared an Instagram post with me from designer, Nathan Yoder of Yonder Studios, who points out that sometimes that fear might just be laziness, or as he says, “… sometimes I’m merely too tired to even try failing.”
It’s worth noting that fear might be hiding under the guise of stress so that if you are running from place to place, plugging holes, barely keeping your head above water, its is very, very hard to justify the necessary risks when you are draining your resources on other things. You only need to go as far as the nearest poverty stricken nation to see what desperation does to taking risks. But this rings true for us as well since we work full time during the week, fighting for space to work on side hustle projects.
The United States government and Small Business Administration like to say that it takes five years for a business to sink or swim. I’d be willing to bet that you can tell in three. In the first year you are going to lose money. Just plan on it. The initial investments alone are going to set you back more than you’ll earn. I’ve had to put money down on a press, some screens, ink, paper, websites, Etsy fees, shipping costs, advertising and on, and on. So far I’ve spent more money than I’ve made by a margin so wide it probably makes the Grand Canyon resemble the G.I. Joe sized rivers I made in the backyard with a garden hose when I was a kid. Until my Mother would come out yelling at me to turn off the damn water. The second year you break even because you’ve figured a few things out, but are still learning to walk. In my case I now have a stockroom full of work that I can sell either in person or online. By year’s end I expect to break even after a few sales, recovering from previous purchases. By year three you can actually turn a profit because you’ve developed into a mature business with your shit kind of in order. Hopefully all the ground work that I’ve laid today will translate into stability going into the future that will allow the business to support itself. So that’s what financial risk looks like. Not too bad if you think about it.
Fear, time and lack of energy, all gang up against your hopes. I don’t think it’s hopeless though. If you can schedule an hour a day, a couple of days a week then you can start building steam. That’s something you can decide to do right this minute – one hour during lunch, or after dinner, every Wednesday. Commit to a schedule and do the work whether you feel like it or not. If it’s something you enjoy then you’ll probably turn your mood around anyway, just by taking the first steps. Sometimes I don’t want to draw, but if I force myself I find that I don’t want to quit because I’m having fun. Don’t stop there though. You have to put your work out there. Post it on Facebook and watch people’s reactions. You’ll probably be surprised at what people appreciate and while it’s implausible to please everyone you might find the confidence to take another step further out onto the stage exposing yourself a little more each time. That’s how I did it. And from that seed grows the knowledge that risk is nothing more than a teaching tool to make life better. Because every time you push out a little further, things become more exciting. Packed with potential. We can train ourselves to push the limits, not because a motivational poster told us, but because we have found the intrinsic and extrinsic values of being in control of our lives.
Over time that step out into the darkness will feel less like an abyss and more like an adventure.